Image: “Midwife” by Trinidad Escobar, ink on textured paper, 2017
This post contains The Witch spoilers.
A few nights ago, and not because it was Halloween, my husband and I saw The Witch. I swear it could have easily been titled, The Aswang, had it featured brown people in the Philippine tropics versus white people in the American frontier. My husband of Irish and German descent commented that the story of the witchy woman probably spans across many cultures.
At first I swore Hollywood was once again ripping off and appropriating our prized Aswang stories, but then again, the whole demonic witch eating-fetuses-and-babies motif must be universally shared folklore of the hyper-feminist threatening the conformist patriarchal hegemonic structure, which made me all the more annoyed that the end of the film should feature a man as the devil, as if it takes another patriarchal figure from the netherworld to grant a wild woman permission to be independent and free: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously? Wouldst thou like to see the world?” Can’t we ever escape patriarchy at all, human or other realm? Women seem damned either way to worship some male figure, dark or light, both being detrimental to the dangerous feminine. Wouldn’t it already be in her nature to seek independence and freedom in the first place, as these things are part of her origin, more ancient than male laws that seek to subdue and confine? I suppose I digress, but not really.
The following poem was born shortly after I suffered a miscarriage, but the idea of it sprang long before when I was still 8 weeks pregnant. I had just performed a reading in Sacramento, with none of my audience aware that I was pregnant at the time save for three friends who attended. I ended up crashing at a girlfriend’s house that night who was from the area and who was one of those in attendance at my reading. This girlfriend was not only a close Pinay friend, but a literary colleague. She had three small children of her own but was not immune to the deep sting of pregnancy loss.
We had talked until the wee hours of the morning. She had known of my pregnancy and like Aswang ourselves, it was she who warned me, “Do not eat your children.” She said it with such authority as if affirming our Aswang origin, the creepy mythological witchy women of our childhood whom we were taught ate fetuses and babies. When she said it, she clarified, “Your children will be so adorable to you, you will want to eat them.” I don’t remember laughing as a response, but thought, she must be right.
Little did I know then that my body would reabsorb the embryo back into itself, eating my child in a strange way, and leave an empty sac with a placenta that would continue to grow and nourish nothing but a ghost child. My pregnancy hormones would continue to rise, my hCG levels eventually soaring over 12,000, though an ultrasound of an empty sac would prove an Aswang had indeed climbed into my womb and taken my child.
In Philippine folklore, the Aswang is an attractive woman by day. Aswang isolate themselves from the townsfolk, residing on mountainsides or deep in the woods. During the day, it lives among people, searching out prospective prey. Its usual targets are pregnant women.
At night, it applies a special oil on its body while chanting a prayer. Fangs, claws, and huge bat-like wings sprout, and the upper half of its body separates from the lower half. It has long, matted hair with big, wild eyes. It flies to the roof of its victim’s house and looks for any openings where it can insert its long, thin, proboscis-like tongue and pierce a pregnant woman’s belly to feed on the fetus inside.
The pervasive belief in the Aswang has not only accounted for female misfits and rebels but also accounts for unexplained failed pregnancies, whether they are the direct result of miscarriage or clandestine abortion.
TWO ASWANG DISCUSS DINNER PLANS
for Jen Palmares Meadows
I was pregnant then.
After 1000 years,
my sister and I no longer had
gray skin but evolved into
brown like the rest. We no longer had
dragon wings etched
into our shoulder blades
but crooked spines –
our bodies upright snakes
underneath layers of winter clothes.
Our slithering tongues replaced
by pink meaty flesh that would
and eat sex
and spew profanities
when there was a full boat
needing to be rocked.
With stony eyes, my sister warned me
not to eat my children.
Her words were appetizers
as I sat frozen in trance
stopping short of comprehension
But there was nothing I could do.
My body eventually did.
You were very much wanted
in a world that doesn’t want you.
You were very much wanted
in a body that didn’t want you.
My brown and white child
had a viability
smaller than a mosquito
and yet indefatigable
leeching off of my flesh
all day long.
my body would swallow it whole –
a fine tango,
an absurd little cuckoo bird
popping out at midnight,
or like dominoes falling
without so much as the prodding of a finger but
soaking up the vibration of songs,
teetering and then slowly top-
The healing herbs of the mangkukulam
which our mothers would’ve brewed 1000 years ago
have become the laughingstock
of Big Pharma
when Big Pharma climbs over the fence,
steals their herbs,
and patents their loot with bottles
that no longer read “Makabuhay”
but are unquestioningly followed “to give life.”
They mass-distribute their gritty little sugar pills
like loaves and fish as if it were their magic.
For us, our charm persists inside our bodies
declaring their own mutiny.
What do dinner plans look like
between Aswang these days?
Eating the young. Eating their young.
Eating our own.
We are tempted.
We sometimes refrain.
We sometimes give in.
We haven’t changed.